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April 19, 2011
A Farewell to Arms
Sometimes a bench player can maintain a convincing imitation of a starter long enough to start looking like something more than he is. In 2007, when Willits first saw significant playing time for the Angels, he amassed 2.7 WARP on the strength of capable defense, a high BABIP, and a lofty walk rate. In seasons other than 2007, he's netted -0.8. Willits seemed like the kind of speedy slap hitter who could sustain a high BABIP by beating out balls on the ground, but since then, he hasn't managed a similar mark at any level, as his batted balls have increasingly headed skyward, which is rarely a positive sign for someone with Pete Gray power.
Willits is the textbook case of a selective player with no pop proving unable to work his way on base in the majors. He managed the feat for half a season by practicing patience and presenting a tiny strike zone, but once pitchers realized that he couldn't hurt them in the zone—he has yet to go yard in almost a thousand major-league plate appearances—they lost their fear of laying it in there, with predictably poor results for Willits. Even in the second half of 2007, the cracks were already showing: after walking more than he struck out before the break, he drew 29 walks against 44 Ks thereafter.
Willits lacks the superlative fielding and basestealing ability that can make a player with his meager talents at the plate playable, but Pettit was working with similarly limited tools and lost all of last season to labrum surgery, so the Angels aren't worse off with Willits than they were before. Unfortunately, they still have a disconcerting tendency to post lineups that look like this.
Entering the season, the Yankees' starting staff was clearly a question mark—literally, in the case of the team's fourth and fifth starters—but they appeared to have at least two dependable arms: A.J. Burnett was coming off a disastrous season, but CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes gave them a foundation on which to erect a rickety rotation. Hughes hadn't yet taken the expected step into acehood, but he had established himself as a starter of some promise. That narrow base eroded further when Hughes hit the DL with a dead arm; as Corey Dawkins and Marc Normandin detailed yesterday, Hughes' arm has been flatlining long enough that gangrene may soon start to be a concern.
One can quibble about what percentage of the growing pains suffered by Hughes and Joba Chamberlain have been caused by Yankee mismanagement, but in Hughes' case, at least, the culprit behind his velo loss is more likely the uncompromising TINSTAAP principle than his trip in and out of the bullpen. For a young hurler to lose some speed is the rule, not the exception—it's just a shame that we may never get to see the Hughes whom the Yanks justifiably wouldn't trade for Johan Santana. Changes in this rotation were inevitable; they just seemed more likely to involve a different pitcher, and perhaps to wait till a little later in the year. As good as he's looked in relief of Hughes' first three starts, “Bartolo Colon, Starting Pitcher” probably isn't a story you'll want to tell the kids before bedtime.
I've already covered Feliciano in this space, but his transfer to the 60-day DL—where he joins another high-priced southpaw in Damaso Marte—makes this sad saga almost complete; now that Feliciano's shoulder has succumbed to its injuries, those abusive Mets can be tried for involuntary manslaughter rather than reckless endangerment, while whoever was responsible for the Feliciano signing on the Yankees' end can plead temporary insanity. At the recommendation of Dr. James Andrews, Feliciano will follow a strengthening program rather than go under the knife immediately, but the lefty already serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of paying for past performance. Granted, past performance often has some bearing on future performance—even in this case, though not in a good way—but overworked free-agent pitchers should still come with a warning label that reads, “Shoulders in rear view mirror may be flimsier than they appear,” since this one appears to have slipped into the Yankees' blind spot.
In my chat last Tuesday, I recommended Nelson Cruz over Josh Hamilton to a fantasy owner, in part because of Hamilton's fragility, and I opined that Chris Davis would get another shot to shed his quad-A label. I didn't expect the Rangers to make me look good so quickly, but a day later, Hamilton was disabled and Davis had replaced him on the roster. If you're a glass-half-full type, you can look at this as the Rangers getting their annual extended Hamilton absence out of the way early, but losing a reigning MVP for any period of time is never good news. If anything, we've learned that Hamilton is no more durable in a corner than he was in center; like a star-crossed character from the Final Destination franchise, some calamity will befall him regardless of where he's stationed.
The Rangers responded to losing their star left fielder by calling up a player who's confined to the infield corners; a direct replacement wasn't strictly necessary, since they already had David Murphy on the roster. Murphy is an old hand at filling in for Hamilton, having done so in each of the past two seasons. The problem with using Murphy to pick up Hamilton's slack—aside from the obvious observation that he's not MVP material—is that it keeps him out of center field, where he was splitting time with Julio Borbon. Murphy isn't anyone's idea of a true center fielder, but unlike Borbon's, his bat fits the bill. In a corner, it's less impressive, but tolerable until Hamilton's return. The Borbon problem may ultimately be solved by Leonys Martin, a Cuban All-Star whose signing is in the process of being finalized. Cuban imports have a mixed track record in the majors (to be fair, so do Americans), but BP's scouting department seems cautiously optimistic about Martin's ability to better Borbon, which is admittedly setting a low bar.
The 25-year-old Davis was hitting a cool .429/.435/1.095 through his first five games at Triple-A Round Rock. The Rangers don't have an obvious spot for him, with Mitch Moreland more or less replicating his solid-but-unspectacular 2010 performance at first, Adrian Beltre entrenched at third, Michael Young hitting .354 at DH (although it's an “empty” .354, if there is such a thing), and Mike Napoli desperately trying to discover whether Jeff Mathis is somehow still restricting his playing time from afar. If Davis keeps launching longballs, he'll find a home somewhere; the Rangers have a number of moving parts that could shift to accommodate him, but it's more likely that he'll end up in another organization that's willing to bet that he didn't peak in the majors at age 22.
Placed LHP Hong-Chih Kuo on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 14, 2011 (left lower back strain). [4/16]
Would that it weren't so, but Hong-Chih Kuo hitting the disabled list is as much a part of baseball as Napoli not getting enough playing time or Jeff Francoeur's annual flirtation with a more productive approach. Kuo is one of those players who's either dominant or disabled; given his team, handedness, and injury history, it may be time to start calling him Kuofax, although it would behoove the Dodgers to keep him operational beyond his age-30 season. When healthy, his medical track record shows up in the Dodgers' reluctance to stretch him or use him on back-to-back days, but not in his ability to retire hitters, which he does almost without equal in the set-up arena, especially against lefties. Although WARP tends not to be kind to relievers, Kuo has twice approached the 3.0 threshold in the past three seasons, so replacing him with someone more fungible represents a significant downgrade, especially since his absence also leaves the Dodger pen without a lefty.
Kuo got closing opportunities down the stretch last season, but his oft-operated-on elbow isn't hardy enough to make him a team's sole solution for saves. This time, at least, the injury isn't to his elbow, but to his back; evidently, it's been bothering him for some time and may even have altered his release point, which could explain the four walks he dispensed in the early going. The southpaw started last season on the DL and recovered to have another excellent campaign, so there's hope that he can put yet another entry in our injury database behind him.
In the meantime, the Dodgers will make do with Troncoso, who fell out of favor last season after earning a prominent role in LA's pen in 2009. Much of his decline last year was pinned on his becoming the latest casualty of Joe Torre's tendency to overwork arms, but while his velocity suffered, his peripherals remained fairly stable and his SIERA barely budged, suggesting that last year's numbers could be a fairly accurate representation of what Troncoso's statline looks like when he's not allowing an improbably low number of home runs.
The good news for LA is that Kuo's loss will be offset by an addition in the rotation. With Garland taking the place of John Ely after completing his recovery from an oblique injury, the rotation the Dodgers drew up is complete, although the veteran righty could have made a better entrance than the four-inning, five-run drubbing he received last night.. As I wrote in my chat, Garland benefited last season not only from the dimensions of PETCO Park, but from the Padres' superb infield defense, which makes his 4.45 SIERA from last season a better indication of his likely Dodgers output than his 3.46 ERA. That's hardly damning, though, as his weighted-mean projection for a 4.35 ERA in 193 innings makes him a perfectly acceptable fifth starter, if something less than an attractive fantasy option. The Dodgers may have a losing record and a two-man offense, but they also have the strongest rotation outside of Philadelphia's, which should keep them in contention in the NL West.
Recalled Jesus Flores from Syracuse Chiefs. [4/12]
If you couldn't tell from my exegesis of J.C. Boscan last week, I'm not a big fan of carrying three catchers. Given the lack of depth at the position, it's bad enough to have to carry two catchers—for all but the luckiest teams (and NL squads that bat the pitcher eighth), the backup backstop is ticketed for the last spot in the lineup when he's allowed to leave the bench at all, serving only to spell the starter from the series of squats and foul tips that come with the territory. I nearly wrote “luckiest and richest,” before remembering that Gustavo Molina started for the Yankees on Saturday, proving that a productive second catcher can elude even the wealthiest of teams (more often than not, in the Yankees' case).
Saddled with an off-brand Molina that Brian Cashman presumably picked up on Canal Street, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has seemingly subscribed to the words of Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, the Motown duo who wrote the oft-covered “Money (That's What I Want)”: “Money can't buy everything, it's true/But what it can't buy, I can't use.” The Yankees' riches haven't bought them a competent backup catcher—which would have been true even if Francisco Cervelli hadn't broken his foot in the Grapefruit League—and Girardi is proceeding as if he can't use the budget model, starting Russell Martin in 13 of the team's first 14 games. That kind of pace prorates to roughly 150 starts over a full season, a workload that Martin came close to experiencing under Joe Torre, but not without significant consequences for his bat, which routinely faded as his innings caught climbed. Should his current usage pattern continue, it would rank high on the list of catcher team-games-started percentage in non-strike seasons since 1950:
Of course, these are only the survivors; other catchers who were on pace to join them burned out before they could. Kendall qualified in 2008, but his shoulder was hanging by a thread after he started all but seven of the Royals' games by August of last season. In addition to Martin, Buster Posey, John Buck, and Miguel Montero have been ridden especially hard in the early going, but the odds are that their managers will either break them or ease off the clutch before their teams reach the ends of their respective schedules.
Given the specialized skill set and physical demands of the position, carrying a second catcher is a necessary evil, but three seems like overkill—how many games have been lost for want of a dedicated third catcher, as opposed to an effective pinch-hitter, a defensive replacement and skilled pinch-runner, or an extra arm? With Wilson Ramos mashing, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche ailing, and the outfield barely registering a pulse, the Nationals' decision to call up another catcher to pinch-hit is perplexing from a roster management perspective, but the second coming of Jesus Flores is an even better illustration of the profound impact that missing even a single season at the wrong time (not that there's a right time) can have on a player's career, as well as the direction of a franchise.
When last seen in the majors, Flores was hitting .301/.371/.505 as a starter through his first 29 games of the 2009 season; that spring, we'd called him the Nationals' “best backstop, for now and into the future,” and it was difficult to foresee how he might be dislodged from that privileged position. Upon returning from shoulder surgery that claimed the remainder of his 2009 and the entirety of his 2010, he now finds himself playing third fiddle to a desiccated veteran and Ramos (who's three years his junior and essentially a more talented version of what Flores was two years ago), both of whom walked through a door opened by Flores' injury. Had Flores not been hurt, he could have solidified his hold on the starting job, saved the Nats the expense of employing a diminished Rodriguez, and allowed them to acquire a prospect other than Ramos to fill a more pressing need.
As it is, Flores is unlikely to play a role on the team even when Pudge departs, what with Ramos in place and Derek Norris in Double-A. That's how quickly a career can turn, but at least Flores is young enough to salvage a future elsewhere. The Nats' curious decision to promote him may be motivated more by a desire to showcase him as trade bait than to make use of his bat off the bench. If Flores were fitted for pinstripes, maybe Martin could enjoy a little R&R.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.